Hoping to slow plastic pollution in the environment, members at a high-level United Nations meeting May 10 decided to include plastic waste in a treaty governing trade in hazardous waste.
The changes in the Basel Convention, which were pushed by Norway and adopted by the 187-nation body, create a legally-binding and potentially far-reaching framework that will put tighter controls on buying and selling of plastic scrap and waste.
At a news conference at the close of the meeting in Geneva, U.N. officials also made note of huge petition drives on social media urging the Basel negotiators to act on plastics waste.
"Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world's most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva ... is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high," said Rolph Payet, executive secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, a U.N. agency.
The decision means that exporters of plastic waste will be required to get permission from the country receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastics, a process known as prior informed consent, according to a statement from a group of environmental non-governmental organizations attending the meeting. They say the decision will give developing countries a better tool to control plastic environmental problems.
The decision follows individual country restrictions, such as China's ban on many kinds of plastic scrap imports in 2018.
"Today's decision demonstrates that countries are finally catching up with the urgency and magnitude of the plastic pollution issue and shows what ambitious international leadership looks like," said David Azoulay, environmental health director for the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law.
"Plastic pollution in general and plastic waste in particular remain a major threat to people and the planet, but we are encouraged by the decision of the Basel Convention as we look to the future bold decisions that will be needed to tackle plastic pollution at its roots, starting with reducing production," Azoulay said.
But the plastics industry had argued that, while well-intended, some of the Basel amendments being considered during the long meetings, which began April 29 and ended May 10, would have "significant unintended consequences."
The World Plastics Council warned in a May 6 statement that overly tight rules could inhibit trade in high-value recycled plastic like PET bottles or slow down development of new technologies like chemical recycling.
"Because in practice many countries will have insufficient time to increase their domestic recycling infrastructure, or improve their capacity to manage new and potentially diverse plastic waste streams under the Convention's prior notice and consent requirements, the proposal in its current form could hinder efforts to address the plastic waste challenge," WPC said.
"So in effect the amendment may exacerbate the many problems arising from inadequate municipal waste management infrastructure, and potentially result in an increase in plastic leakage to the environment," it said.
Environmental groups criticized what they said was resistance to including plastic waste in the Basel treaty, coming from the United States government and U.S. business groups like the American Chemistry Council.
But WPC, which includes ACC, said it recognized the challenges facing some countries with plastic waste and said the Basel discussions could lead to positives actions, like more investment.
WPC said the plastics industry was working on solutions, such as the industry's $1.5 billion Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
"The WPC acknowledges and agrees that some countries lack infrastructure to properly manage used plastic, which could lead to environmental and health impacts," it said. "We also agree that an update of the waste listings for plastics under the Basel Convention could encourage investments in recycling to enable a more local circular economy."
WPC is composed of CEOs of more than 20 of the world's largest plastic resin makers, along with national and regional trade associations, including ACC and PlasticsEurope.
A Basel statement said the goal of the new rules is to make trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated and ensure that management of plastic waste is safer for human health and the environment.
The environmental groups said that because the United States is not a signer of the Basel Convention, it will be prohibited from trading plastic waste with developing countries that are Basel parties but not part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.